Literary Evidence for the Cultural Development of a Theory of Mind

Andrew Gordon, Proceedings of the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, July 7-12, 2003.

Abstract: The term Theory of Mind is used within the cognitive sciences to refer to the abilities that people have to reason about their own mental states and the mental states of others. An important question is whether these abilities are culturally acquired or innate to our species. This paper outlines the argument that the mental models that serve as the basis for Theory of Mind abilities are the product of cultural development. To support this thesis, we present evidence gathered from the large-scale automated analysis of text corpora. We show that the Freudian conception of a subconscious desire is a relatively modern addition to our culturally shared Theory of Mind, as evidenced by a shift in the way these ideas appeared in 19th and 20th century English language novels.